Diet is the most important aspect of fitness and it is something you must focus on if you want to make changes to your body. Study after study has shown that when it comes down to it, if you don’t change your diet, you don’t change your body. 80% of body change comes from diet alone and only 20% from exercise. Put another way, if you workout 5 days a week for one hour, you’ve spent less than 3% of your week in the gym. It’s the other 163 hours outside that are important because those hours need to support the hard work you’re going through.
Basically, if you want to look good, you have to eat good. Personally, I recommend a “paleo” style diet to most people; high protein, extremely high vegetables, some fats and low carbs. I try not to get too dogmatic about it because when it comes down to it, if you eat less, you lose weight. But, there are a few things I tend to not budge on.
1.) START A FOOD LOG/JOURNAL! Food logs help you keep better accountability for yourself and what you’re eating. Imagine how you feel writing in your journal “8oz sirloin, 2 cups broccoli, 1/2 avocado” vs “2 slices pizza, 1 can pepsi.” I bet you just winced a little just from reading it, didn’t you? A few tips for your journal: don’t spend more than a couple bucks at the CVS across the street and structure it with the date, the time you ate your meal and what you ate. Finally, cheat days(more on those in a minute) don’t get recorded. If you’re a client of mine, I’m not going to check it like homework and make you feel bad. It’s there to keep yourself accountable and allows us to see if we can make changes somewhere.
2.) High protein. You want about 1 gram per pound of lean mass. So if you weight 200lbs and have a body fat percentage of 20%, your lean mass is 160lbs. To generalize, ladies you want about 80-100 grams and guys want about 150-175. There are a few reasons you want this much protein. First, eating a lot of protein helps keep you feeling full longer. Since most of us are trying to lose weight, we are trying to reduce calories but there is no sense in starving ourselves. High protein helps derail those problems before they become an issue. Second, protein helps our body grow lean muscle tissue. This is good because more muscle means we have a higher metabolism naturally. Meaning we can eat more food and not gain weight.
Think of it as a buffer, too. When you have more muscle mass, your body is a little more forgiving when you do pig out. Make family and friends feel envious as you pack away food during the holidays and still look good!
Finally, by hitting your protein needs for the day, you start to naturally eat the amount of calories that your body needs. Instead of counting calories, count your protein; however, a good starting point for amount of calories to lose weight is about 13 calories per pound of weight. Just don’t keep lowering and lowering the calories because your body will adapt to the decrease in calories and will simply lower your metabolism to match, meaning more plateauing and frustration.
3.) Vegetables. It’s impossible to get too many vegetables. The “best” are green, leafy like kale, spinach, collard greens, etc. but all vegetables are good for you. Plan every meal around a protein and veggies. Fresh is technically better than frozen or canned but who cares? I’ll repeat this often: there’s the ideal world where we eat and do everything we’re supposed to and there’s the real world where we make do.
4.) Fats. Fats don’t make you fat; overeating does. Fats are great and necessary for our body to remain healthy. Plus, adding fats to your meals helps slow down digestion and keeps you feeling full for longer, just like protein. Just look back to the low fat fad in the 90′s…America has gotten bigger than ever! Butter isn’t too bad, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and nut butters, avocado, naturally occurring fats in meats; you want them all.
5.) Carbs. When I say carbs, I’m referring to starches; things like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, etc. Carbs in vegetables don’t “count” and in a similar manner, carbs in legumes (beans, lentils, etc) only count for about half; this is due to dietary fiber. Now when it comes to carbs, most people usually have a lot of success changing their bodies by completely cutting out bread and pasta. When I said before overeating makes you fat, I meant it. Carbs are awesome at making you fat because it’s incredibly easy to overeat them and not realize it.
Think about this; 1 plain bagel is about 350 calories so. That’s also about 1.25 cups of pasta, 1 medium to large sized pancake or .75 cups of rice. It’s not too much a stretch to say most people could eat any one of those on a normal day in one sitting. Now compare that to 14 cups of broccoli, 55 cups of spinach, 3 chicken breasts or a 8oz steak. Which ones are going to make you feel full for longer? How often have you shrugged your shoulders and had that second bagel? Do you think you could just shrug your shoulders and eat that extra 14 cups of broccoli or 3 more chicken breasts?
So hopefully you understand a little better what I’m talking about now. Again, breads, pastas and other “prepackaged” or processed items are going to be the biggest culprits here and I strongly, strongly encourage you to cut them out of your diet for the most part. Dinner with friends isn’t going to kill you or cause you to gain all your weight back; just avoid for the most part.
Now “natural” carbs like potatoes, rice, beets, beans, etc are good for you and aren’t as bad as breads and the like. Oatmeal is OK too but I urge you to rethink having carbs at breakfast and opt for protein and even vegetables instead. This is because carbs are essentially sugar when they’re broken down in the body. When your body processes sugar, it releases insulin and this is a great thing because too much sugar in the bloodstream causes fun side effects like poor circulation, blindness and death.
Insulin = Good. Check
However, when the body releases insulin, our growth hormone and testosterone(even you, ladies) levels drop as a result. This is not so good because the two of those keep our metabolism and fat burning levels high. By not ingesting any carbs (or sugar for that matter) until later on in the day(after 4PM-ish), we get a little extra fat burning effect, keep our blood sugar levels steady and become less insulin resistant, meaning when we do eat carbs, our body absorbs them more readily rather than storing them as fat. This isn’t a deal breaker if you want your oatmeal in the morning, but it is something to think about.
Basically, when it comes to carbs, no bread, pasta and other similar items. Potatoes, rice, beans and the like are fine. Try not to eat carbs until 4 or so.
5 A.) Carb Timing/Meal Timing. Something else to think about with carbs is eating them right after a workout for similar reasons as waiting until 4PM. When your muscles need energy, they use what’s called glucose. Glucose is basically just carbs that get stored in your muscles to be used when needed. And when we lift weights, our muscles use up that glucose to get through our workout.
On top of that, lifting weights(you’re lifting weights, right?) creates microscopic tears in your muscles. Trust me, we want that to happen for two reasons. The first is it takes a lot of calories to repair those tears. The second is that since our body doesn’t want those tears to happen again, it responds by building bigger and stronger muscles, so now our metabolism has increased.
So now we’ve put our body in a state that is primed to accept carbs readily and put them to good use rather than storing them as fat. Our muscles have used up all their glycogen stores so they need to convert carbs into glucose to refill them. Also, our muscles need to repair all those microscopic tears created from lifting the weights which takes a lot of calories. Introducing carbs now is good because, as I said, they’re more likely to be put to “good use” rather than just getting stored as fat.
Ideally, you wouldn’t have any carbs during the day, would work out around 4PM and have a big dinner around 5 or 6 while having all your carbs then. Again, real world vs ideal world comes into play here. When it comes down to it, ideal is great, but it’s not going to make a humongous difference at the end of the day. The only thing that makes the difference is if you keep doing what needs to be done by staying consistent with your diet and workouts.
As far as general meal times, you may have heard that you need to eat 5-6 times a day to “keep your metabolism high” or other such reasoning.
This is pure crap.
Plenty of studies show that you will burn the same amount of calories no matter if you eat 1 meal or 6 meals. If you like eating 6 meals a day, more power to you. If you want to eat once, that’s fine too. Just aim to hit your protein intake everyday, eat something after your workout and you should be fine.
6.) Cheat Day. Once a week, no rules. This helps boost your metabolism and keeps it from stagnating as well as gives you a mental break so you can actually enjoy life. Again, no need to record these in your food journal.
8.) Other stuff like fruits, booze, sauces, etc. This catch all category is stuff I might have forgotten as well as stuff that isn’t too big a deal. Moderation is the word. Fruit is fine, wine with dinner during the week isn’t a huge deal and BBQ sauce on your chicken isn’t going to end the world; anyone that says they only eat chicken with some lemon squeezed on top is either lying or crazy.
I’ll end with two notes. The first is this is the real world. If I have to choose between happy hour with friends or going home for the night, the decision is based on how tired I am(or how small my bank account is), not out off of fear that I’ll mess up my diet or guilt that I want to indulge. You should do the same. If you make life too restrictive, what is there left to enjoy? Now this is not free reign to go out and eat every night of the week! Just be sensible about it. You’ll backslide; we all do. You’ll also make great progress too, even if it’s just saying no to cake at the third office birthday party of the week, so be proud of that.
Basically, we’re normal people. Focus on the broad picture first. Athletes pushing their body to the limits are the one’s who need to focus on the small stuff.
Finally, this is a lifestyle we’re developing here, not a short term “diet.” Dieting leads to reducing calories in a mad attempt to drop to some arbitrary weight. And what happens is those people almost always gain all their weight back because they A.) haven’t taken the time to change their habits B.) they’re doing something completely unsustainable since their body will either force them to eat out of starvation or they’ll subconsciously rebel and sabotage themselves C.) Most importantly, they’ve deprived their body of food and the body responds by breaking down muscle tissue. Remember how I said the body finds ways to slow down metabolism when you drop calories? This is the most damaging; the body doesn’t know there’s a supermarket down the street. It just “knows” that you’ve reduced calories and it had better slow down your metabolism so you don’t starve to death. Since muscle takes an incredible amount of calories and energy to maintain, that is usually the first thing to go.
This is also why I hate traditional cardio so much. In a very similar manner, the body wants to stay efficient because at this new level of exercise, you’re wasting a lot of energy with unused muscle, so it drops the muscle mass so it doesn’t starve. Now you have this vicious circle that people go down; they cut calories and start hitting the elliptical. And they lose weight, but not necessarily fat. But then the weight loss stops, so they drop more calories and do even more cardio. Down and down the hole they go until they give up because to keep moving forward with their weight loss, they’ll be eating 500 calories a day and working out for 3 hours.
Focus on whole foods, get lots of protein and veggies, drop the bread and pasta and you’ll do fine.
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